There wasn't a smidgen of buzz when it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, not a pinch of hype when it played afterward at Sundance. But First Love, Last Rites, directed by Cambridge-bred (and ex-Lemonhead) Jesse Peretz, was certainly the American smash at this month's Rotterdam Film Festival. I was on the International Film Critics Jury (along with jurors from India, Russia, Argentina), which presented our co-first prize to this sublime adaptation of an Ian McEwan short story, relocated from Britain to the Louisiana bayous.
Let's say it immediately: Jesse Peretz's pop is neo-con Martin Peretz, hawkish boss of The New Republic. But I won't hold that against his talented offspring. First Love, Last Rites seems to me the most perfectly realized American independent feature in several years. It tells of a Brooklyn adolescent sucked into a libidinous love affair with a fickle, unpredictable Louisiana girl (a virtuoso white-trash performance from Natasha Gregson Wagner). There's the endless screwing; otherwise, the girl's ideas of a swell time are a daily chowing down of Chinese shrimp takeout, scooped from a plastic container, and a boiling on the stove, record by record, of her collection of 45s.
Peretz, who relocated to New York for a career directing rock videos, told me that he grew up watching films at the Brattle (some all-time favorites: Jules and Jim, Naked, Breaking the Waves), and that he learned filmmaking at Harvard under ace professors, Robb Moss and Alfred Guzzetti.
His decision to switch the McEwan tale to Louisiana came easily. "Setting it in England, there were more places to trip up doing the culture right," he said, "and Louisiana is a mysterious, wonderful state." However, he was worried what McEwan, whom he calls "my favorite living writer," would think of the transmigration.
"Our script sat on his desk for four months, he didn't want to read it. Then he read it, and loved it. Ian came to Louisiana, and I took him on a tour. Though his story is very autobiographical, he said that we had a much better location to set the story than where it really took place."
Distributed by Strand Releasing, First Love, Last Rites is slated to open in August. That's when music rights clear for the title song by the late Jeff Buckley, to whom the film is dedicated.
What else from Americans at Rotterdam?
A presentation by Janet Murray, a genial MIT professor of Advanced Interactive Narrative Technology, in which she posited a merry future for narrative in cyberspace, on-line Hamlets and Waiting for Godots, a someday digital "art world with the resonance of the novel and cinema."
A wild talk by heavyweight film author, Noel Burch, in which he disavowed his earlier obsession with theoretical, modernist cinema ("I realized one day that those films are boring"), while publically embracing his new happiness, life as a masochist. "Burch travels around Asia asking people to beat him up," a film festival director told me.
The world premiere of a fabulously Brechtian 30-minute film, What Farocki Taught, by Jill Godmilow, made with her filmmaking students at Notre Dame University. Godmillow took a 30-year old work of the Egyptian-German director, Harun Farucki, and reshot it exactly, frame by frame, camera position by camera position. Farucki's was a Vietnam War-era inquiry into civilian responsibility for the development of killer Napalm, set at Dow Chemical headquarters in Michigan. As reconfigured by Godmilow, the film is intellectually rigorous and emotionally frightening, a ferocious, committed, important historical/political tract for the amnesiac 90s.
More masochism. A live S&M show by New York's Maria Beatty, a professional "submissive," in which her girlfriends punctured her skin with needles in a ritualist rewrite of the Salome story. The performance was part of "Sex at the Rex" day at the Fest, in which salacious films and X-rated live artists took over a Rotterdam porno moviehouse. (Boston Film Festival, are you listening?)
Gossip! Harmony Korine, 23-year-old screenwriter of Kids and filmmaker of Gummo, showed up at the Fest with a new girlpal: Bjork!
Rotterdam is probably the most adventurous, avant-garde, far-out film festival on earth. Gummo, which was practically run out of America as a foul-taste indie disaster, won a prestigious citation, and a money prize to aid its Dutch distribution, from Holland's film critics.
In Boston, Gummo was passed over by Sony Theatres and Kendall Square, premiering last month at the Harvard Film Archive. I saw it there with the most youthful, body-pierced audience ever to land at Harvard. I'm still haunted by some of the transgressive scenes, such as the one in which a roomful of bare-chested hillbillies get yahoo-excited when one of them wrestles a chair.
"The chair almost won," Korine told me at Rotterdam. He was very pleased when I informed him that Errol Morris, who saw Gummo at Harvard, vowed to vote for it as Best Film on his Academy Award ballot.
"How did you feel," I asked him, "when The New York Times's Janet Maslin wrote that Gummo is the worst movie of the year?"
"What do you expect?" he snorted. "She's the worst film critic in America."